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The Twisted Tales of Chen Guangcheng and Edward Snowden

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Yesterday, as American leaker Edward Snowden made his headline-grabbing flight from Hong Kong to Moscow, the blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng left New York to spend time in Taiwan. Both trips were described as likely to annoy the government of the traveler's home country. This was just the latest curious convergence in the tales of two men who until recently had nothing in common.

Two years ago, Chen was a poor activist lawyer under house arrest, Snowden a highly paid National Security Agency contractor. During 2012, while Snowden stayed unknown, Chen became globally famous. In the spring, he captivated audiences around the world with his daring escape from confinement, journey to the American Embassy in Beijing, and move to NYU to begin the fellowship whose terms are now be disputed. Soon after that, the Lantos Foundation gave him a human rights award and GQ profiled him as its "Rebel of the Year" for 2012.

It was when Snowden made his own move into the spotlight, revealing himself as the person responsible for major leaks on NSA surveillance operations, that the two figure's stories began to intersect -- to the point where, sometimes, a report about one can seem at first to be about the other.

A strikingly strange case in point involves a June 19 Atlantic Wire post that said new revelations from Reuters involving computer software gave an "already-bizarre saga" a "pulpy spy novel" feel. This could have been about Snowden being charged with espionage. It was actually, though, about claims that NYU techies discovered spyware on an iPad two supporters gave Chen when he first arrived in New York.

So, thanks to Snowden's Hong Kong sojourn and that possibly tricked out iPad, a Google news search for "China" and "spy" now pulls up links to stories about Chen and stories about Snowden, but it's equally interesting to note where "David and Goliath" plus "China" web searches lead. Late in 2012, this search would have only brought up links about Chen: both the Lantos Foundation and GQ called him a modern-day "David" fighting a Communist Party Goliath. Now, that search gets you hits for Snowden as well, as some see him as a David-like figure clashing with a Goliath-like American security state.

One important contrast is that there's never been as broad an international consensus on Snowden's status as a David as there once was on that of Chen. Snowden's actions have earned him praise from some, but criticism from others, and many see him as neither completely heroic nor thoroughly villainous. Just a few weeks ago, the only important division of opinion on Chen seemed between the Chinese authorities (who thought he could do no right) and nearly everyone else (who thought he could do no wrong).

Chen certainly remains a hero in the eyes of many, but his dispute with NYU, centering on his insistence that the institution bowed to pressure from Beijing and reneged on promises to keep supporting him, has fractured that consensus. Even some people who continue to admire the courage he showed in fighting for the rights of the disadvantaged and exposing official malfeasance while in China feel that NYU has behaved appropriately toward Chen, and is now getting unfairly criticized simply for ending a promised year of support. Many people, myself included, who worry about the way Beijing's use of carrots and sticks can warp the decisions made by American colleges and universities generally, just don't see evidence of this happening here.

There's an added rub: much of Chen's PR is now handled by someone who has worked closely with Karl Rove. Many noted the irony of Snowden, a champion of freedom of information, stopping first in even the freest part of the People's Republic of China, given that country's abysmal secrecy and surveillance track record. Surely, though, there's also irony in a "Rebel of the Year" collaborating with someone who helped bring us the Patriotic Act.

The parallels between the two men's stories are definitely striking, but those who notice them sometimes assume, erroneously, that Beijing must be as desirous of bringing Chen back to the mainland as the American administration is of getting its hands on Snowden. To the contrary, Beijing has long felt it useful to let gadfly figures leave the country and has sometimes pushed them into exile. They do this hoping that, once out of China, these figures will be forgotten or lose credibility at home and perhaps do things that reduce the goodwill they start out with abroad.

Chen's sad story, alas, is not likely to make China's leaders doubt the wisdom of this cynical but often effective strategy.